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New Mexico ranchers turn to taxpayers for drought assist

By   /   February 6, 2013  /   No Comments

PARCHED: This section of the Rio Grande in New Mexico reflects the low water levels across the state. Courtesy: US Geological Survey

By Rob Nikolewski | New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Suffering through the state’s worst drought  in 60 years, New Mexico farmers and ranchers may get help from the Roundhouse ­– but at a hefty price for taxpayers.

Senate Bill 440, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, calls for $120 million for the Interstate Stream Commission to “acquire, retire, protect and conserve” water in the lower Rio Grande basin, which has degenerated in some spots from a mighty river to a slow-moving stream due to the lack of rain and snow.

“We’re not getting water down to the southern part of the state, and we’ve got to find ways to addresss that,” Cervantes told New Mexico Watchdog. “One of the ways to address that is to import some water from outside the district. Another way to do that is acquire senior water rights.”

“Water is a sleeper issue here in New Mexico,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said on the opening day of the session. “It is going to be — and already is — a major concern.”

Nearly every chart, graph and measurement reflects the dire picture across New Mexico.

  • Virtually the entire state as in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
  • The drought has hit New Mexico’s eastern plains the hardest, and according to the Palmer Drought Index, a measure that combines temperature and precipitation, the area has suffered through its driest two-year stretch since the drought of the 1950s.
  • Of the state’s 15 reservoirs, 14 are below 50 percent capacity, the University of Arizona’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) shows.

“It’s a devastating world out there,” said Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales,who is a farmer in the hardest-hit area of the state. “When we do get rain, we’re getting two-tenths, three-tenths of a inch of rains. It’s like putting water on hot grease.”

WATER: New Mexico state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, has introduced a bill calling for $120 million to try to address the state’s drought crisis.

The dry conditions have prompted the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission to conclude that “as more time passes, and water problems increase in magnitude statewide, existing regional water plans are outdated and useless in addressing emerging water crises.”

SB440’s hefty price tag – it’s about $25 million more than the annual budget for the state Department of Public Safety – may prove to be a big hurdle in tough financial times. But Cervantes, with no pun intended, said that it’s a “drop in the bucket.”

“We have to have a comprehensive approach from the top of the state down,” Cervantes said.

While the bill directly affects the southern part of the state, one of the most influential legislators from the north, Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, says he’ll support it.

“It can’t be a north against the south (situation),” said Griego, a farmer and rancher. “We have to work together as a state because the farmers in the south are suffering the same thing as the farmers in the north.”


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Griego plans to introduce his own bill, calling on the state to spend $400,000 from the general fund to construct water storage plants.

Unless the state receives moisture of practically Biblical proportions, expect to see more debate.

“The drought right now is simply bringing to our attention what is inevitably in the future of the state of New Mexico, which is growth and development,” Cervantes said. “We’re trying make that happen. … All those things are tied to water. Nobody’s going to come here, (companies aren’t) going to stay here, we can’t achieve any of those goals if we can’t assure people of the water they need.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rob@nmwatchdog.org.

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Rob Nikolewski is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in Santa Fe, N.M. Contact him at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @NMWatchdog.

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